From Rob Barnsby
Nick Mathews also gave a marvellous tribute to Dad at The Claregate. So that made 7 speakers in all.
A Humanist Funeral Ceremony
To celebrate the Life of
George John Barnsby
29 January 1919 – 11 April 2010
Bushbury Crematorium (East Chapel)
Thursday 29 April 2010
British Humanist Association
The Co-operative Funeralcare (Tettenhall)
Music: Authentic New Orleans Jazz Funeral: Just a Closer Walk with Thee
Welcome. We meet here this morning to say our final farewells to George John Barnsby. But it will be much more than that. It will be a celebration of the life of a single minded, passionate, and talented man, who gave so much to the area of communism, anti racism and academia.
George expressed the wish that he should have a Humanist funeral, and so, with the help of his wife Esme and his family, we have constructed a ceremony which we hope will be a fitting tribute to George’s life and work. My name is Wendy Weavin, and I am a celebrant with the British Humanist Association, it is a privilege to be with you today.
It is natural that you should be sad today, because in a practical sense George is no longer part of your lives. Each person here had a contact or relationship with him that was special just to them. Whether the relationship was that of an acquaintance or whether it was closer, it was different from the relationship of any other person.
Grief has a massive impact on those who shared someone’s life the closest and the deepest. Our hearts go out in sympathy to Esme, Sid, Rob, Bill and the rest of the family. George was a special and influential person in your lives, and he will be greatly missed by you all.
We know that the value and the meaning of life consist in living it and living it well. People who have been a strength and comfort to others, and have worked for future generations, deriving fulfilment and satisfaction from doing so, are the people who create the value and meaning in life. It is clear after speaking to George’s family and friends that he was such a person.
The great American philosopher Sidney Hook said that all teachers write on sand. We all do; we live and are remembered through our families and friends. Our footprints soon vanish in the sands of time, unless we are heroes or monsters. But what matters is how we live, and how those who knew us perceive those footprints, and I am sure that George’s will be seen, for longer than most.
George was born ninety-one years ago, in the army barracks in Aldershot to George and Clara. George’s father was a regular soldier with the British Army. Later George and Clara had a brother for George, named Sid. On leaving the Army, George senior became a railway porter, but sadly he died when George junior was only three years old.
On leaving Battersea Central School at fifteen, George did several office-based jobs, until with the outbreak of the Second World War; he was called up for national service, in October 1939. His total possessions at that time were two suits and a bicycle. George was assigned to the Royal Army Medical Corps, and during his early days of conscription George became, as he described it, an “armchair communist”. George was sent abroad to India and Burma, and en route the ship he was traveling on, berthed in South Africa. George saw with his own eyes the injustices of apartheid, and then when he arrived in India he witnessed the terrible sufferings of the people living in slums and surviving famine. The indignity and unfairness George himself experienced, and also observed in others, converted him from an “armchair communist” to an active one.
Whilst he was based at Imphal in Burma, George became a member of the Imphal Rhythm Club that was started by fellow soldiers, for the appreciation of jazz music. It was affectionately known as the furthest east jazz club in the world. George continued to listen to and appreciate jazz throughout his life.
Towards the end of the war George became involved in helping the Burmese rebuild their infrastructure, and was particularly interested in the SATO Polytechnic project in Rangoon. George was attracted to economics and current affairs as he was politically minded, and this made him want to go to the London School of Economics after the War. On being demobbed in May 1946, still with two suits and the same bicycle, and now a gratuity of about £100, he made the decision to spend the money on going to University.
During his time at the London School of Economics, George continued to be an active communist, and became the Secretary of the Communist Society. He also met his beloved Esme who was a fellow student. They courted for a while and were married in November 1951 at Wood Green Registry Office in London.
On leaving LSE, George did a one years teacher training course on the promise he would get a job in teaching. However, when he finished the course, he applied for jobs all over the country, but couldn’t get a teaching post that really appealed to him. Eventually he was offered a job at Etheridge Secondary Modern, in Bilston. He moved into the area, and Esme followed a short time later. Though he didn’t intend to stay, George began to grow fond of his adopted home, and so he and Esme settled, and finally moved to Henwood Road, where they raised their two sons, Rob and Bill.
I would now like to ask George’s son Rob to say a few words about his father.
As most of you will know, my Dad was Secretary of the Wolverhampton Communist Party for 25 years. About a year ago, he told me about a book somebody was writing about growing up as the child of Communists, and how the author was asking for people to write about their experiences. Dad asked both Bill and myself, if we would write something and send it in.
I just said, “yeah Dad, when I get chance, or “Let me think about it” and of course, I never got round to doing it.
Well Dad, as you’ll remember, I always was late handing in my homework !
So what was it like growing up as the child of a Communist ? The answer is, I honestly don’t know whether it was any different to growing up as the child of any other parents with strongly held beliefs.
What I do know, is that Bill and I had as happy a childhood as anybody could have wished for.
Maybe Dad had to compromise his beliefs a little to give us the environment to do that in, and if so, I’ll always be grateful. Somebody told me, only recently, that people used to say to Dad, “If you’re such a committed Communist, and you believe in the struggle of the working man, how come you live in a nice house in a middle class area like Compton?” Dad’s reply was, “I wanted my boys to grow up breathing fresh air.”
Some of my earliest memories childhood memories could only have come from growing up in a Communist, or certainly a Progressive, household.
I remember sitting on Dad’s shoulders, marching through the town centre on anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. This must have been around 1967 or 68. I can still remember the chant Dad taught me, “Hey, hey, L.B.J. How many kids have you killed today?”
I can remember Dad reading the Daily Worker, or later The Morning Star in the bathroom on a Saturday morning. He used to smoke in those days, and in my mind, I can still smell that unique cocktail of John Players Navy Cut and Izal Medicated toilet paper!
I remember delivering election leaflets for Dad when he stood for Wolverhampton Council. Peter Rhodes wrote a very warm tribute to Dad in the Express & Star, 2 weeks ago, which we all appreciated, but Peter did get one thing wrong, when he said Dad never stood for election. He did stand, several times, as a Communist candidate in Graisley, Blakenhall & Whitmore Reans. I should know. I helped him deliver his election addresses. I used to ask him “Why do you always have to stand in wards with so many tower blocks?” His reply was “Cos the people who live here are the ones who need the Communist Party. Now finish the top 3 floors!”
But I’ve got just as many childhood memories that could have come from growing up in any happy, loving family anywhere with totally non-political parents.
I remember Mum and Dad used to take us on family holidays at Whitsun every year. There was the holiday camp at Skegness where me and Bill dressed up as pirates in the fancy dress competition. The Lake District, where Dad took us hill walking, and it peed down with rain every day. We had a cottage with an open fireplace that filled the place with smoke every evening from all the wet clothes hanging up to dry. Weston-super-Mare in 1976, when the beach was invaded by ladybirds and I used to stay in bed till lunchtime every day, because I thought I was too old, at 15, to still be going on family holidays. Dad used to be up at the crack of dawn taking Bill for walks along the promenade.
I can remember family evenings at home, when Dad used to play his records, introducing us to people like Paul Robeson, Tom Lehrer and Louis Armstrong. Dad loved to play Fats Waller “Your Feet’s Too Big” and Tommy Steele “What a Mouth What a Mouth, (What a North & South)” cos he said they were written for Bill.
Most of all, I remember the long summer holidays, staying with Mum’s family in Palmers Green, and staying in Croxley Green, and later Carpender’s Park, with my Nan, Dad’s beloved Mum Clara, and my Uncle Sid, who sadly, isn’t well enough to be with us today.
I think to understand my Dad, and what motivated him and shaped his beliefs, you have to know a little about his childhood.
My Grandad, Dad’s Father, who was also called George, died when Dad was 3 years old. His Death Certificate says he died of Influenzal Pneumonia on 17th May 1922 at age 41. What it doesn’t say, is that this was as a direct result of being gassed in the trenches during World War 1. He was a professional soldier, who’d already served in the East Kent Regiment for 10 years before war broke out. He was with the 1st wave of troops who were sent to France in September 1914 and he was finally discharged in March 1920. In other words, he served the whole of World War 1 war in the trenches of the Western Front. He was wounded and sent home in 1917, and when he recovered, he was posted to a Training Battalion in Aldershot, which is where Dad was born. This should have been a nice cushy number to see him through till the end of the war. Unfortunately veterans like my Grandad, who knew what was in store for the recruits they were training when they reached France, were not always welcomed by some of the Officers and senior NCO’s safely based in England. One day, he missed a parade, was put on a charge, and as a punishment, sent back to the front, leaving my pregnant Grandmother devastated. He was one of the very last to be sent home after the Armistice, and he missed my Dad’s birth. He was only discharged from the army in 1920, so Dad only knew him for a couple of years before he died, and his memories of his Father were very faint.
We know all this because of the letters my Uncle Sid found, only 10 years ago, and because my Dad, ever the Social Historian, had the foresight to record an interview with my Grandmother, Clara, when she was 80, talking about her childhood in Brixton, growing up with 8 brothers and sisters(and those were just the ones who survived), sharing a 2 bedroom house with another family, and going into Domestic Service at 10 years old. I listened to that tape again last Sunday and it was wonderful to hear my Nan again, but also Dad’s voice sounding young and strong.
After my Grandad’s death, Clara, had to bring up Dad and my Uncle Sid by herself, and it was only after an Appeal to the War Office, that 18 months later, she was awarded a War Widow’s Pension of £1, 18 shillings and 11d per week.
All this, plus the poverty he saw around him every day, growing up in Battersea between the wars, had a profound effect on him, as those of you who’ve read his one third autobiography “Subversive” will recall.
The lessons Dad learnt, growing up, lasted a lifetime. They shaped him and his view of the world. They gave him principles and beliefs that lasted him a lifetime, that he never betrayed. They gave him a campaigning spirit and a will to carry on that was incredible to see.
So Dad, I know you wanted my memories of growing up as the son of a Communist, but the memories I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life are of growing up as the son of a wonderful, warm, loving, generous, principled, human being.
Thank you Rob.
In 1961 George took up a position at Dudley College as a lecturer in the Department of Business and Management Studies. Apart from taking a couple of years out to complete an MA and a PHD at Birmingham University, he remained with Dudley College until his retirement in 1979.
During all this time George remained an active communist. As Rob said earlier, George was Secretary of the Wolverhampton Communist Party for twenty-five years. He was heavily involved in all the campaigns that were taking place, including the peace campaigns for nuclear disarmament. He also went on a number of trips to socialist countries including the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany, where he helped many students with English lessons. George was a tireless letter writer, pamphleteer and author of twenty books. Later, he relished in the new medium of the Internet and wrote on his blog, most days. Even in his last few weeks, George was dictating dialogue to his sons, who, on his behalf, would post entries on to his website. George never lost his passion for what he believed in, and right up until the end he was still calling for the arrest of Gordon Brown for war crimes, and then in the next paragraph, he was commenting on Arsenal’s latest performance.
I would now like to ask George’s friend Rob Hazlehurst to say a few words.
George and I have been friends for many, many years and in fact the first time we met was when I was about 15 years of age via my brother John.
Years went by and then about 30 years ago serendipitously we met up again, I can’t remember how, but that was the beginning of a long and nurturing relationship.
The highlights of our friendship are many but the ones that shine out are for example the time when George told me in 1993 that he wanted to set up the Wolverhampton ANC Support Group to raise money for the ANC in the forthcoming, historic South African elections.
He told me that I was treasurer, I had no choice in the matter and off we went.
Well we set a target of £10,000 and managed almost £7,000 at the end.
The magnificent response and co-operation of the Trade Unions, the Labour movement and the Churches, the African - Caribbean and local Asian groups was heroic. It was a poke in the eye to those in Wolverhampton who promulgated the lies and myths of the Enoch Powell brotherhood.
George had brought together a committee consisting of George as chairman and secretary, myself as treasurer, Andy Goodall as computer buff and printer, Dyll Ferreday from Zip Theatre who arranged and helped with social events and Ricky Reggon who sweated blood to make the African-Carribean events a success.
Memorable is hardly the word for it.
And then in 1997 when George had completed the draft of his Opus Magnus, Socialism in Birmingham and the Black country on his trusty Amstrad PC (nearly 600 pages in small font) the problem arose that the printers would only accept the text in the form of micro-soft word or similar. Now George could use a keyboard but that was about his limit!
So what to do? As it happened my brother John down in Bristol had the software and the know how to convert Amstrad to Microsoft and he it was fortunate that he was retired because he then spent many, many days in Wolverhampton sleeping at the Hazlehurst’s and grafting away at the Barnsby’s; the final outcome being the publication of Georges finest and largest work which received accolades from Historians and Academics world wide. We all enjoyed splendid times together at the various launches of this great book, not least of which when we had a well- attended launch down in Westminster.
And over the years I had the great joy in helping George compile and publish numerous short books and pamphlets not least of which was his autobiography “Subversive”. We sat and talked for hours about his life.
And what to do now? No longer am I going to get those phone calls which always began, “Bob this” bleep, bleep” computer has got a mind of its own”
And when eventually he’d got me down at Henwood Road to sort things out he’d say it’s about time you showed me how to cut and paste! I must have shown him a thousand times but he never got it!
But we all know he managed very, very well without it.
George’s impact on recording the history of the working class in our locality is second to none. The legacy that he has left to us all and for future generations will still be there to inform and guide us when the scribbles of current, so called political journalism has ended up in the recycle box and been forgotten for ever.
And finally you may know that over the years George collected many hundreds of books on social and political history. This came to be known as the George Barnsby Working Class Library. George was very, very anxious that his collection should be put to good use after he died. He had hoped that they would end up at Bilston College but this was not to be. Unfortunately the matter was never resolved whilst George was with us and remains a huge problem for Esme and the boys.
If anyone here today can think of an appropriate final resting place for George’s lifetime collection, perhaps you could pass on your thoughts to the family.
I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to have such a great friend.
Thank you Rob.
Foremost George was a communist, but he was also a fervent anti racist. He became a founder member of the Wolverhampton Racial Equality Council and remained an active member, completing statistical work for them, until it was closed down five years ago. I would now like to invite George’s good friend Lance Dunkley to say a few words.
Thank you Lance.
George described football as one of his greatest passions. As a youngster he had been given an old-fashioned red football jersey, and as he was kicking a ball about on Clapham Common, a passer by shouted “Up the Arsenal”. Also, as his mother was a rail worker widow, the family had a “privilege ticket”, so George could travel from Sloane Square to Arsenal station, for one and a half old pence. And so for these reasons, he became an Arsenal supporter - and from that moment until his death, he was a passionate and loyal fan to the club.
I would now like to invite George’s son Bill to read a poem that has been chosen for today.
You can shed tears that he is gone
Or you can smile because he has lived,
You can close your eyes and pray that he’ll come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all he has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him
Or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember him and only that he has gone
Or you can cherish his memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you could do what he would have wanted
Smile, open your eyes, love and go on.
Thank you Bill.
We have tried to tell the story of some of the key moments in George’s life, but of course there was so much more. We will now have a time of reflection so that each of you might remember the person George was, and how his life touched your lives. Those with a religious faith may like to use this time for your own silent prayer.
Music: Joe Hill – Paul Robeson
We will now hear a piece of music George requested to be played today, The Internationale. The words have been printed in the order of ceremony sheet, and the family would be grateful if you would sing along with them. Please stand and remain standing.
Music: The Internationale
The time has come now to take a formal farewell of George.
And so death has come to our friend and loved one, George. His hopes and ideals, we commit into our minds and our wills, his love we commit into our hearts, his body we commit to its natural end.
I came unknowing what the light would show;
Found joy, disasters, wonders, guilt and pain;
And cheerfully, unconned by myth, will go
Back to the real, indifferent dark again.
Please be seated.
Today we have recalled some of the key moments in George’s life. Let us return to our homes and our work enriched and inspired by these memories, resolved that we who live on will use our lives more fully, and to better purpose for having known him, and for having shared in his life.
On behalf of the family I would like to thank you all for being here today and showing your support. The family would like to say a special thank you to the staff on Ward D15 and D18 at New Cross Hospital for their care and kindness whilst looking after George, also to the doctors and staff at West Park Nursing Home, who were so kind and helpful.
The family have requested donations in lieu of flowers therefore if you would like to make a gift in George’s memory there will be a collection plate as you leave. The money will be donated to two charities that were important to George, Wolverhampton Diabetes Trust and the CND Campaign. Please can you indicate which charity you would like your gift to be donated to.
You are all warmly invited to join the family after the ceremony at The Claregate Public House. Perhaps today’s celebration of George’s life can continue at this venue, and some of you may want to share thoughts and pay tributes to George later on.
As we leave we will hear some more jazz music, a song called Didn’t He Ramble. But before the music is played let these be the final words:
I fall asleep in the full and certain hope
That my slumber shall not be broken:
And that though I be all-forgetting,
Yet shall I not be forgotten,
But continue that life in the thoughts and deeds
Of those I loved.
Thank you, go safely and in peace.
Music: Authentic New Orleans Jazz Funeral Music: Didn’t He Ramble